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Dogs of Europe, Belarus Free Theatre, 2022
Photo by Kolya Kuprich

‘We spent five days in hell’ – Belarus Free Theatre returns from the brink

‘Dogs of Europe’ is the dissident theatre company’s first show since being forced into exile

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Early March 2020 was my second trip out to the Belarussian capital of Minsk to visit the astonishingly brave underground theatre company Belarus Free Theatre.

The first time, in 2018, its searingly political shows took place in what was basically an anonymous suburban garage, with audiences invited at the last minute via a WhatsApp mailing list. The company was officially banned by the repressive regime of the country’s dictatorial president Victor Lukashenko, and there had been recent, violent clampdowns. Some years ago, Belarus Free Theatre’s leaders, Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada, had been forced to flee to the UK for fear of arrest. However, despite being an international cause célèbre who performed through Europe and North America, BFT remained dedicated to and based in its home country, with Khalezin and Koliada directing shows remotely.

A couple of years on, and things were looking up. ‘Dogs of Europe’, its new one, was playing at… well not quite a theatre, but a found space, and a big one at that, with a bar and a sign outside informing passers-by what was going on inside. The company remained officially banned, but in a clandestine way relations with the government had simmered down, with no ‘incidents’ since last time I’d been out. The play was BFT’s adaptation of Belarusian author Alhierd Bacharevic’s sprawling dystopian-noir novel about a future in which all memory of Belarus has been lost, its memory trampled by a future Russian superstate. ‘Dogs of Europe’ was about to transfer to London and the Barbican‘s vast main stage: an incredible achievement for a group of scrappy rebels from a country few Brits could pick out on a map, performed in (surtitled) Belarussian.

But everything went tragically downhill soon afterwards. The company was caught up in the ferocious government crackdown launched around Lukashenko’s heavily disputed election win in August 2020 and the subsequent mass protests. The book was banned. Shows were no longer given tacit tolerance. Eventually, in December last year, it was announced that the entire Belarus Free Theatre ensemble had gone into exile for safety reasons: they’re now based in Warsaw. That the Barbican transfer of ‘Dogs of Europe’s had been scuppered as a result of the pandemic was a downer but fairly trivial as these things go.

Nonetheless, it’s truly wonderful that – almost exactly two years after I saw ‘Dogs of Europe’ in Minsk – it will finally open this month at the Barbican, as the first major show from the now wholly exiled theatre company. What it’s cost them to get here, few of us will ever really understand. But nonetheless, they’re coming.

Given the events of the last two years – and, indeed Belarus’s status as a staunch Russian ally in the current war with Ukraine – it felt a bit weird to do the preview I’d originally intended, so instead, I asked Belarus Free Theatre managing director Svetlana Sugako (picture below) to fill me in on the last couple of years.

Svetlana Sugako, Belarus Free Theatre, 2022
Photo by Kolya KuprichSvetlana Sugako

In March 2020, my impression was that things were going relatively well for the company in terms of being able to work unmolested – was I right? 

‘Yeah, it was a kinda liberalisation game from the regime. But it was also a time of having hope for change in Belarus and a time of seeing how civil society would grow.’

What happened to you and your company as a result of the 2020 election?

‘On August 9, [company members] Nadya and Dasha and I were arrested. We were at the polling stations, waiting for the results – and we were arrested right there on the street. We spent the next five days in hell. Of these, three were days of detention in cells intended for four people, but there were 36 of us there. Torture was involved. 

‘Whilst we were in jail, the rest of the ensemble were just trying to find out where we were and if we were alive. When everyone was released from prison after five days, we were sure that the time of Lukashenko’s regime had come to an end. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Over the few months that followed there were massive peaceful protests in the streets. Two more ensemble members were arrested – they spent 15 days in prison. It was getting more and more dangerous to stay and so in spring 2021 the first member of the company left the country – by the end of November we had all gone.’

The national Belarusian language can put you in jail

Was ‘Dogs of Europe’ the final show you staged in Belarus?

‘At the end of August 2020, we toured the show “Tsar Tsar” which is performed on and in the river. We built a wooden raft and sailed it down one of the rivers of Belarus to take theatre to people in the small villages who are really disconnected from the capital – there’s no internet, they don’t go into the city. Also during the pandemic, we staged an online premiere “A School for Fools”, which reached audiences online on Zoom, so we never stop the creative and working process.’

The twisty, turny, somewhat surreal story of ‘Dogs of Europe’ is about a man travelling through a future Europe/Russia where almost all memory of Belarus has disappeared. Why was the book clamped down upon?

‘“Dogs of Europe” is a dystopia and is written in the national Belarusian language, which, although officially allowed in Belarus – it’s the state language, along with Russian – in reality is a language which can put you in jail. Talking in Belarusian publicly would be enough to attract the attention of the police and the KGB.’

How do you think British audiences will take to the play? It’s like a very epic, very strange detective story.

‘I think that the novel (and subsequently the play and the performance) cannot be obvious, nor simply intelligible. It is multi-layered and complex. Some audience members like to solve complex puzzles, others might find that annoying – hopefully there will be lots of different opinions.’

How have you found the process of remounting this show? 

‘The process is difficult, but very interesting. We are glad that we can work together again and do what we love.’

What are Belarus Free Theatre’s plans after ‘Dogs of Europe’? I believe this is your only ‘official’ engagement.

‘After the Barbican, we plan to return to Warsaw. We’ve been making work – performing and running workshops there – since December. At first, we were working with refugees from Belarus – there are a lot of them there – for Poles, of course, and now for refugees arriving from Ukraine. We are all very traumatised and most likely the next performance will be about our experience of torture, flight and war. Global events are moving so rapidly and unpredictably that it is very difficult to plan with certainty right now, but when guns are firing we must not stay silent.’

‘Dogs of Europe’ is at the Barbican, Mar 10-12. 

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